A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 8, 2014
John 8:2-11 ESV
I have been avoiding tackling today’s topic for some time because of the sensitive and potentially controversial nature of the subject. But with the recent action of the state of Tennessee in reinstating the electric chair as a primary means of capital punishment, I felt it was time to consider it. In case you missed it, on May 22, our Governor signed into law Tennessee legislation that would allow the state to return to the electric chair as a means of capital punishment against any current or future death row inmate, if lethal injection drugs become unavailable. In other words, this new law could make everyone on Tennessee’s death row subject to the electric chair. The electric chair was considered a more humane form of capital punishment when it was first introduced in New York in 1890. It was first used in Tennessee in 1916. But because of a number of botched, prolonged, and horrific executions, the electric chair was some time ago deemed less humane in favor of the needle and lethal drugs. Only eight U.S. states still hold the electric chair as an option for death row inmates. Currently there are 74 prisoners on Tennessee’s death row. On May 27, several protestors to the new law gathered at the Tennessee State Capitol. Some held signs reading “Execute Justice, Not People.”
Lethal injection—the primary means of execution of late—has come under fire because of a number of botched executions with that method and because of the shortage of European-made lethal chemicals and the boycotts surrounding them.
Some states are considering other methods of execution that are deemed by many to be even worse than the electric chair. Wyoming lawmakers are considering the firing squad, whereas Missouri has considered returning to the gas chamber. One Tennessee lawmaker said he would support returning to hanging.1 States that continue to enforce the death penalty are largely concentrated in the south, whereas several states have abolished the death penalty over the past ten years.2
Now, I know that capital punishment is a complex and a hot button issue. So I realize I may be treading on shaky ground in addressing the issue. But I do so from my own faith perspective, and following years of study and reflection on the issue. I have a thick file of articles on the death penalty that go back over 20 years. And I have never been one to insist that everyone has to agree with my position.
All of that having been said, I would like to suggest that the following considerations be kept in mind when thinking about the issue of capital punishment:
- There are studies that show that the death penalty does not deter crime any better than a life sentence without the possibility of parole does. We have all head the old adage, “You cannot fight fire with fire.” If the state kills someone for having killed someone else, doesn’t that just legitimize and perpetuate the practice of killing? It just doesn’t seem right, humane, and enlightened for the state to commit a pre-meditated killing of someone. There are those who contend that instead of being a deterrent to violent crime, it perpetuates the use of violence as an acceptable way of dealing with human problems.
- Several issues such as the decades-long appeal process, exorbitant legal fees, housing inmates on death row, and so on make the death penalty several times more expensive and costly to the state than comparable cases where the sentence is life without parole.
- There is a high risk of executing prisoners who were falsely accused or are later found to be innocent. As of December 2013, at least 143 people in Missouri had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death since 1973, but before their executions they were found to be innocent and released from prison. What if those 143 innocent people had been executed? Some years ago, a University of Florida sociologist’s research had documented 420 death-penalty convictions of innocent people.3 There is no question that innocent people have been executed over the years in the United State. How many people over the years who were wrongly convicted were actually executed, no one will ever know.4
- In some cases, capital punishment is a reward instead of punishment. In other words, some who commit horrific crimes such as mass murders seek capital punishment as a means to martyrdom or infamy. For instance, Timothy McVeigh, who master-minded the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing in 1995 sought the death penalty. I said way back then he should not have been put to death, because that is exactly what he wanted. How much better if McVeigh had been sentenced to life in a work prison—making road signs or doing manual highway work—without the possibility of parole. Another example was Nidal Hassan, who in 2009 went on a killing spree at Ft. Hood, Texas, taking the lives of 13 innocent people. He, too, sought the death penalty for what he had done. Why should such people who perpetrate such crimes be rewarded with the exact thing they want?
- Killing someone as a means of punishment is based on a 3,000-year-old cultural practice that believed in “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21). Have we not progressed any beyond that type of mentality? The primary biblical basis for capital punishment is the Old Testament, or ancient Hebrew scriptures. But while basing the argument in favor of the death penalty on those ancient texts, no one is willing to carry out the prescribed punishment of death for other offenses like Sabbath breaking (Exodus 31:15) and community stoning of children who curse their parents (Exodus 21:7; Deut. 27:16).
The truth is, killing someone is not attractive, no matter how you look at it. In Pakistan, a pregnant woman was stoned to death outside a courthouse on May 27 by nearly 20 members of her own family, including her father and two brothers. What was the woman’s crime? It was marrying the man she loved without her family’s permission. But the truth is, hundreds of Pakistani women are murdered every year in so-called “honor killings” as punishment for alleged adultery or other illicit sexual behavior.5 We are appalled at such stories, just as we may be appalled by the story of the woman accused of adultery who was brought to Jesus and was liable for stoning according to the religious law of that day. So why should we not be appalled when our government kills someone, or even considers killing someone, by way of electric chair, lethal injection, a firing squad, gas chamber, or by hanging? We should take note of Jesus’ response. Jesus would have no part in a community-sanctioned execution. I, personally, do not believe Jesus condoned the death penalty. And my personal conviction is that followers of Jesus should not condone a community-sanctioned death penalty either.
I will share a personal story with you. In 2002, I changed my denominational affiliation, as I aligned myself with the New England Congregational tradition and the United Church of Christ. The last official church meeting I attended in my former denomination was the annual denominational gathering, to which I (ironically enough) had been elected as a regional delegate. One of the issues that was debated that week was capital punishment, and whether or not the denomination would go on record as opposing the death penalty. The issue was hotly debated for quite a while. I simply could not believe some of the comments of some of the other delegates who rose to speak in support of the death penalty! I sat as long as I could, and the longer I sat, the more I fumed. Then I stood and asked to address the Assembly. And when I did, here is what I said: “I am a Christian, a follower of the Christ. The life of Jesus was a life of love and forgiveness. I do not believe Jesus approved the death penalty, and I do not believe any follower of Jesus should approve or support the death penalty either.” Then I sat down.
My conviction—based on reason and my own faith perspective—is there are much, much better ways than capital punishment to seek justice and deal with those who commit the worst of crimes against humanity. The death penalty just has too many negative issues surrounding it (as I enumerated above, the most serious one involving innocent people who have been executed then later found to be innocent) that call for a change in the way we deal with criminals. Some years ago, Fred Cloud wrote in the Tennessean newspaper, “Why should the death penalty be abolished? Because it is wrong to kill. It’s wrong for individuals and it’s wrong for the state. We can use imprisonment-without-parole or other remedies for our most violent offenders.”6 I tend to agree with him.
One of the articles in my files includes a detailed account of what happens when someone is killed in the electric chair. It is nauseating to read. My gut reaction to the state of Tennessee’s return to the electric chair is that, instead of evolving to a more enlightened, humane, and rational way of dealing with society’s criminals, we have regressed to a more barbaric past.
After the manner of Jesus, I am not ready to pick up a stone or help pull the lever and participate in a community-sanctioned killing of anyone. And I would wish that the State not do so in my name either. Amen.
1Erik Schelzig, Knoxville News Sentinel, May 24, 2014.
2Jess Bravin, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2014.
3Peter Applebome (The New York Times News Service) The Tennessean, May 24, 1992.
4Drew Johnson, Knoxville News Sentinel, December 1, 2013.
5USA Today, May 28, 2014.
6Fred Cloud, “Nashville Eye,” Tennessean, September 1, 1994.